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Issues of the Day African Refugees in Israel: Dealing with the Challenge

Recently, during the intermediate days of Passover, the holiday recalling the Jewish people’s freedom from bondage, the term refugee was on my mind.  It was conspicuous  in the press: Syrian troops were reported to have fired on civilians fleeing the violence in their country. Also, dispatches continue to  describe the killing by Egyptian border keepers of African refugees trying to reach Israel.

During the holiday I was in Tel Aviv and while traveling from one part of the city to another by bus, I missed the stop where I was to get off. The bus drove past Levinsky Park near the old central bus station. The area is run-down, and the park is packed with African refugees from Sudan, Eritria, Congo and the Ivory Coast. Also, many undocumented workers from Asian and other countries reside in the neighborhood. The scene is one of relative squalor and while there are noble attempts by volunteer groups to provide schooling and other services to the refugees and asylum seekers, there is a sense of lives being wasted as these displaced people await solutions to their plight.


There are, in fact, two populations negatively impacted by the situation: the refugees themselves, and the regular residents of this poor south Tel Aviv neighborhood and other like it in cities from the north of Israel to Eilat, our southernmost city. When they are able to find work, the refugees receive inadequate wages. They are subject to arrest, detention and expulsion. Many sleep in the open and have no idea where there next meal will come from. Crime, resentment and violence invariably ensue.


It is difficult for a small, congested country like Israel to absorb large waves of foreign migrants. We ourselves are a nation of refugees, having integrated masses of people from all over the world who had nowhere else to flee. And while we are not responsible for the unrest that caused the African migrants to leave their countries, I believe that we have a moral commitment to assist them.


The government’s policy on the subject is dominated by the pronouncement of the Interior Minister, Eli Ishai, who recently vowed to “remove” the African refugees from the country. He speaks contemptuously of them; his positions and directives concerning the issue are repugnant.  A fence being built in the Negev desert that was originally meant to intercept armed infiltrators and smugglers will also be commissioned to keep out migrants. Work on a large refugee detention facility at Ketziot near the border with Egypt is about to commence.  


Rather than heaping abuse on the migrants whose desperate circumstances have forced them to leave their families and societies and seek refuge in a country that is conspicuously free of the kinds of terror they have experienced, Minister Ishai, who heads a professedly “religious” party representing a constituency largely descended from people who were forced to quit the ancient Jewish communities of North Africa, would do well to remember the central teaching of Passover: avadim hainu, “we were slaves.”


His policies aimed at beefing up the immigration police, creating a refugee detention facility and raising walls to keep out people with nowhere else to go, should be replaced with a more constructive approach. One way would be to declare the proposed camp a transit station where refugees could be temporarily sheltered while awaiting mandatory international evacuation to countries better equipped to absorb them: The African refugee problem is not Israel’s alone and the international community is obligated to spearhead efforts to alleviate it.


Additionally, as I discuss in an article, Restoring Israel’s Relations with Africa, in yesterday’s The Times of Israel, recent governments have drastically reduced  Israel’s once enviable international cooperation program to a shadow of its former self. The program should be revived. By doing so and assisting in poverty reduction and the development of distressed societies in Africa and elsewhere, we could contribute to the reduction of the very causes that turns people into refugees.

A Jewish society cannot be indifferent to the kind of homelessness and wanderings that were a mainstay of our existence for two thousand years. To be true to our tradition, we cannot desist from aiding the refugees, though we must find productive ways of doing so that do not stress the host communities on whom the problem has been foisted.     

Restoring Israel’s Relations with Africa by Yosef Gotlieb, April 18, 2012, The Times of Israel

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